Directorate for Social, Behavioral
and Economic Sciences

NSF 98-312   June 19, 1998
by Rolf F.
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Employment of doctoral scientists and engineers by the nation's universities and colleges has continuted to increase, but full-time faculty numbers have held steady.












Since 1991, the number of full professors has declined by 6 percent' but full-time junior faculty members have increased by 10 percent.

What is Happening to Academic
Employment of Scientists and Engineers?

Employment of science or engineering (S&E) doctorate holders by the Nation's universities and colleges grew slowly during the first half of the 1990s, from an estimated 206,800 in 1989 to 217,500 in 1995, the last year for which data are available. The bulk of the increase was concentrated in the life and computer sciences (table 1). The average annual increase reflected in these numbers-below 1 percent-contrasts with the 2.9 percent average during the 1980s and 4.7 percent for the 1970s.[1]

In contrast to the modest increase in overall academic doctoral S&E employment, the estimated number of full-time doctoral S&E faculty[2] peaked in 1991 at about 173,000. Consequently, full-time faculty in 1995 is estimated to represent only 79 percent of all doctoral scientists and engineers employed by the academy, an all-time low; this share had been 88 percent in the early 1970s.

Table 1. Academic doctoral scientists and engineers by type of position: 1973-95

Many of the faculty hired during the 1960s' expansion of U.S. higher education are at or nearing the age at which they can be expected to consider retirement. One in four full-time doctoral S&E faculty were 55 years old or older in 1995, and one in ten were at or above age 60. As universities and colleges struggle to gain financial flexibility, they face questions about replacement hiring, the role of part-time faculty, and a variety of other appointment alternatives.

What is happening to full-time faculty?

The roughly steady numbers for full-time S&E faculty do not hold for all ranks. Since 1991, the number of senior faculty has fallen by 4 percent (about 5,700), with full professors dropping by 6 percent. In contrast, faculty in junior ranks-assistant professors and instructors combined-has increased by 10 percent (figure 1).

Figure 1. Academic doctoral scientists and engineers by type of position: 1973-95

There were field differences as well. The 1991-95 decline in the number of senior faculty was about 8 percent in the social sciences and 5 percent in psychology, while the number in the life sciences remained nearly stable. Computer sciences was the exception: the number of senior faculty almost doubled, but from a low base – from roughly 900 to 1,700.

Despite large percentage increases in full-time junior faculty, their absolute numerical increases did not fully balance out the overall decline among senior faculty. Junior faculty rose by an estimated 3,900, compared to estimated losses of about 6,700 among senior faculty in all S&E fields combined (save computer science which gained about 800) (table 2).

Table 2. Changes in the number of academic doctoral scientists and engineers in faculty and other types of positions, by field: 1991-95

Robust growth outside the faculty ranks

Academic employment of doctoral scientists and engineers outside the full-time faculty ranks expanded at a robust pace, from 37,500 in 1991 to 46,200 in 1995. This growth was driven by a steep increase in the number of postdoctorates, which rose from about 10,000 to 16,800. Others with full-time academic appointments but no faculty rank – research and teaching associates, postdocs, persons with administrative responsibilities, etc. – rose from 20,200 to 23,900. Those holding part-time positions actually declined from 7,400 to 5,500 (table 1).

Again, there were field differences in this non-faculty employment growth. Postdoctoral positions in the life and physical sciences, psychology, and engineering all rose robustly; the first three of these fields also added other full-time personnel outside the faculty ranks.

These changes in the composition of academic employment from 1991-95 may provide some clues to its future structure. They suggest a relative shift away from full-time senior faculty and towards employment outside the traditional faculty ranks. But it is too early to tell whether these patterns represent temporary adjustments or a more enduring shift.


This Issue Brief was prepared by:

Rolf F. Lehming
Division of Science Resources Studies
National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 965
Arlington, VA 22230

SRS data are available through the World Wide Web (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/). For more information about obtaining reports, contact pubs@nsf.gov. or call (301) 947-2722. For NSF's Telephonic Device for the Deaf, dial (703) 306-0090. In your request, include the NSF publication number and title, your name, and a complete mailing address.


[1]Survey changes in 1991 and 1993 affect the direct comparability of the data, but rough trend analyses appear possible, provided small differences are treated with caution, as has been done here.

[2]Faculty are defined here to include full, associate, and assistant professors plus instructors.

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